Confessions Of A Ski Bum

Get Into Backcountry Skiing PT 4 : Culture

In part 4 I’m going to dive into the dirty world of ski bum culture so you can prepare to deal with kooks, jaded locals and “know it all newbies”. If you haven’t read parts 1-3 you should check them out but even those who have skied for a couple of seasons might find this interesting (entertaining?).

Backcountry ski culture is wide ranging and varies from town to town, country to country, person to person. There is a rich and interconnected backcountry ski community out there. I’ve travelled all over Western Canada skiing while living in my van and I have been hosted by complete strangers and made life long friendships (and enemies) because of it. If you decide to commit to skiing full time, hitting the open road in search of powder, you will be gifted in many ways. Here’s some basic advice and insight into the culture found in Western Canada (sorry for the scope, I’m too poor to go elsewhere it seems!).

Online

Online skiing forums/groups seem to be filled with the same types you see in any online space. A breeding ground for keyboard warriors and people offering advice with less experience than the tele skier you met stealing food from resort trash cans last night. Online communities can be a great way to find partners, get advice or feedback and to open up general communication with the larger community but you need to take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t take a random person’s advice about the snowpack and ignore your own findings. Don’t go on 1:1 outings into avalanche terrain with a complete stranger. Don’t believe someone has a deep understanding of a piece of terrain just because they seem to know what they are talking about. Tread lightly and think critically in all cases online. And when you see someone being a bully to someone asking a simple question stand up for them by answering the question or by admitting that you also don’t know. The “know it all newbies” online are a seemly powerful and often rude bunch.

On The Road

If you’re ski town jumping you will run into plenty of different people from all over the world in Western Canada. If you are in a new zone and interacting with locals make sure to ask them about unspoken rules for the area. For example the last time I was in the Bonnington Range it was a no-no to park your sled at the huts. Back in the day when Ripple Ridge Cabin was first-come, first-serve it is was good practise to ski in a bit of firewood as by April they would usually run out. In National Parks there are a ton of laws and some common “that’s not cool” unspoken rules. Are you about to head into heli ski territory that you shouldn’t be in? Did you skin through a cross country area which ruined the expensive, time consuming track setting? Realize that not all areas play by the same rules and respect the local traditions of how locals use the backcountry. And when some ski bums offer you a place to crash offer to make dinner, bring some drinks or figure out how to help out in some way.

Drugs

Travel around enough in the ski scene and you’ll realize backcountry skiers love drugs. If you are not into that it’s cool, I’m not and I rarely run into people who get pissed about my position. I have met a lot of hardcore ski bums who ski in avalanche terrain while high, if you don’t come from a ski culture which this is common place you might not be comfortable in that situation, express that you don’t feel comfortable and see what happens. 99 out of 100 times they will respect your concern and 1 out of 100 you can decide not to ski with them. I have rarely seen this situation go bad but it’s something to be aware of and good to be aware that you can voice your concerns and people are generally cool about it.

Kooks, Alphas and Jaded Locals

There are skiers out there who think they are king shit and that you suck! That’s right, you suck! We rule! Oof. Often they are “know it all” types who started skiing last winter or the type that has been skiing so long that they forgot what it meant to be a beginner. You will almost certainly meet a jaded local in your travels, one which is pissed about your Alberta plate while skiing in Golden or another close to the border ski town. Sometimes these types can confront you aggressively, especially when you have just skied in “their zone”. Often they can be passive aggressive, if you hear “umm ya around here we only use 130mm+ underfoot skis” behind your back in the parking lot in Kootenay Pass you should just ignore them and get ahead of them on the skin track. You will also probably run into “alphas”, who will question your knowledge, experience and every decision because you just skied some dense trees in Con/Con/Con. These types aren’t worth your time. Every year I get stopped by someone from this category, these days I like to have a little fun with them before blasting past them on the skin track but before you take that approach it’s best to learn how their minds work from listening to their non-sense (just make sure to take it in small doses).

Black Market

Every ski town has a black market for everything, and I do mean everything. Generally the workers in these towns are under paid, over worked and are there to ski, not to work 3 full time jobs to survive and because of that black markets are created. I’m not going to get too deep into this for obvious reasons but I will say the more you contribute to skiing culture the more support you will find. Bring tune shop employees beer.

Finding and Keeping Partners

The best way to find good partners is to be a good partner. Education, knowledge and being easy to get a long with will help. Even still finding and then keeping partners is tough. Many skiers like to move to new towns or zones. Often it’s hard to make good friends in every day life but then to add the chance of dying to the equation makes it that much harder. Don’t keep skiing with someone who isn’t a good fit, it’s not worth it. Generally if the fit isn’t good both people will know it regardless if it is spoken so it’s usually not a “break up” type of situation. If a partner is bossy during arguments about risk, safety, etc then you probably don’t want to ski with them. For example if you don’t feel good about an objective but they are mad about not doing it anyway then it’s breakup time. I’d rather not ski then ski with a partner I don’t trust.

Be Creative and Learn From Ski Bums

If you go down the ski bum road you’re going to need to get creative to survive. The list of things I’ve done to ski full time is, well, let’s not go there actually. When hanging out with the hardcore underground ski bums ask them how they’ve been skiing full time with only 2 months of work a year for the last decade. They are usually happy to give you tips and tricks to get you to your ultimate dirt bag self.

My Powder Is The Best Powder

No matter what everyone you meet will tell you their zone has the best snow. Coasters will tell you about the time it snowed 18 feet in 2 hours but will forget to mention ski pen was 20cm. Revy kids will show you videos of non-stop face shots but will edit out the rain on lower mountain. Nelson skiers will brag about their roadside stashes but not mention they don’t have any good alpine areas. Rockies bums will claim the driest, lightest snow but leave out they were skiing directly on rocks under that snow. East Coasters will pretend they have good skiing. Every area has their advantages and disadvantages. Every area can be the most amazing time of your life when conditions are good. On the flip side every area can be the worst skiing you’ve ever experienced if your timing is wrong. Regardless of these easy to understand truths you will always be bombarded with “our snow is better over here” talk within the ski culture. Don’t fall for it.

Dogs

Here’s a touchy subject! Some people think dogs should never go skiing in the backcountry, others think they belong. The truth is somewhere in the middle and that no one actually makes skis for dogs anyway. If you bring your dog skiing it needs to be well trained, you don’t want it to randomly run up an avalanche path and trigger it on you. Wildlife harassment is also a valid issue and in some areas it is illegal to bring dogs due to this. But as I started out this is a very touchy issue and if you bring your dog out skiing be prepared for people to yell at you.

Not All Bad

I know the above feels like there is more bad than good in the culture but that’s me misrepresenting a bit to prepare you. In general the backcountry skiing community is super sweet. In the last decade there has been a growing movement of open sharing of information, inclusiveness and support. If you run into something not cool don’t let it make you jaded. After all it’s just skiing, it’s suppose to be fun!

Part 5

I haven’t written it yet but it’s coming! Stay tuned.

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